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Bills-Browns training camp practices, Day 1 review: Buffalo defense

How did the Buffalo Bills' defense look in their first practice with the Cleveland Browns this week? About as you'd expect, given the circumstances: physical in all aspects, and hit-or-miss in a young, talented secondary. These are our notes from today's session.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

On a sweltering, 90-degree morning in Rochester with high humidity and little in the way of a breeze, the Buffalo Bills squared off against the Cleveland Browns in the first of two padded practices this week. While Tuesday night's joint session will include a live scrimmage, this morning's practice was light on hitting, focusing more intently on individual work while mixing in some 7-on-7 and quick-whistle, 11-on-11 situations.

I was fortunate enough to attend the session, and unfortunate enough to join the thousands of fans at Growney Stadium that sweated through his or her shirt by the time players started trickling onto the field. The mercies of bottled water and one small patch of clouds kept me alert through most of the session, however, and I'm back this afternoon with this report. Hope you enjoy it.

I only watched the defense

If you were hoping that I'd be able to offer any clarity on the Bills' quarterback competition, or feedback on what the first-team offense looked like against the Browns' top defensive unit, I sadly cannot help you. I am but one man, and on such a ridiculously warm weather day, rather than running all over the place trying to keep track of everything I could, I parked at one field and embarked on a slow-melt, content to see what I saw with half of the practice participants.

I repeat: I only watched the Bills' defense today. And even then, it was mostly linebackers and defensive backs, as both team's linemen worked on a separate field, although I did catch a glimpse of the Bills' defensive linemen for 11-on-11 work. Other than that, it was the back seven.


Here's what stuck out to me most watching the Bills' defense against a Browns offense that is not expected to be very good:

  • Powell injured: By now, you have surely heard that backup linebacker Ty Powell injured his ACL, and could very well be done for the year. What I saw on the play: the Browns were running left in full-team work, and Powell was moving to his right along with the Bills' other two second-team linebackers. When the Cleveland runner cut back to Powell's left, the linebacker planted his right leg, but then my view was obstructed by defenders piling in to make the stop. A Bills teammate stood up and motioned trainers over immediately after the play was whistled dead, and as players separated, a visibly-upset Powell slammed his hand into the turf, then the back of his head into the ground. For a few minutes, the session stopped completely as players gathered around Powell. Refs then moved the drill further upfield, while Preston Brown and a couple of other Bills players hung back to stay with Powell. He was then carted off the field, giving fans a wave and a thumbs-up as he was cheered off the field.
  • A very brief skirmish: Brown, who had a very active practice (he recorded a sack of Josh McCown in the very first play of 11-on-11, too), was involved in the only brief fight of the day. I did not see what happened, even, because the thing lasted for less than 10 seconds, but Brown was right in the middle of everything, and Browns receiver Marlon Moore (who was wearing a red jersey) had to be led off the field to flex and grind his teeth on the sidelines. It was not a big deal, though things like that can sometimes snowball.
  • WR vs. DB drills: I have seen a lot written about these drills today - particularly how the Bills' receivers lit up the Browns' defensive backs, which I unfortunately did not see - but just know that that was largely the case on the field I monitored, but in Cleveland's favor. Here's the thing: this drill heavily favors the offense. It's an on-island, difficult-to-win situation for the defense, with no pass rush and no safety help. Just one-on-one work. Bills defensive backs were called for a few pass interference penalties, and it's clear that Donnie Henderson is coaching them up to be as physical as possible, even beyond the five-yard barrier. There were a few nice pass break-ups - Stephon Gilmore had one on the very first rep, and Ron Brooks and Ronald Darby joined him later in the session - but by and large, that drill was riddled with penalty flags, a few easy Browns catches, and an alarming number of dropped balls by Cleveland receivers. (Terrelle Pryor, in particular, dropped at least three passes that I saw.)
  • Safety limitations: I have seen written in very reputable publications (hint, hint) that the Bills could challenge Seattle for the title of NFL's best defense in 2015. What might hold them back from that distinction? Safety play. Seattle has, without question, the NFL's best pair of safeties. Buffalo has a talented group of athletes there, but they're not in the same stratosphere. The only one that will be able to consistently drop and cover receivers well is Corey Graham, based on what I saw today. None of their likely-to-play options has the range over the top that Earl Thomas offers Seattle. Buffalo has good safeties, don't misunderstand me. But on a very good defense, I consider this position their biggest liability. (That's saying something, because their top three guys are solid.)
  • Player/lineup notes: Undrafted rookie A.J. Tarpley stepped in for Powell with the second-team defense, joining fellow rookie Tony Steward in the lineup... The Bills might be in the market for a linebacker soon, with both Powell and Jimmy Gaines shelved... Ellis Lankster made it onto the field for his first practice today, and while he looked a little rusty, he was already easily on par with the rest of the back end of the Bills' cornerback depth chart... Mario Butler has been talked up by Rex Ryan this summer, but his athletic limitations are evident when you watch him, as he is considerably less agile than the fleet-footed athletes in front of him in the pecking order... Other than Graham, the best-looking safety to me in one-on-one drills was Duke Williams... Darby continued his up-and-down trend, as he was torched on some quick-hitting patterns, but made up for it with a couple of nice plays on deep balls (and a third that drew an iffy flag).

That's all I have, though you're free to ask any questions that you might have (about the defense!) in the comments section. For two-plus hour practice sessions, these are fairly laid-back affairs. If you were out at Fisher today, what did you see that I didn't?